December 27, 1999
Farmers rally in D.C., renew struggle for land
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
WASHINGTON, D.C.—”When we started this fight it was not about money, it was about justice,” said Jacob Lipscomb, a hay and cattle farmer from Nottoway, Virginia. Lipscomb was one of the original farmers who initiated a class-action suit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for racist discrimination. He was one of nearly 100 farmers and their supporters from a dozen states across the country who rallied here December 13 at Lafayette Park. The upbeat mood of the protesters in the cold, late-morning drizzle exemplified their determination.
Meeting after the rally, the farmers called actions for January 17 in Atlanta and in late February here in the capital to turn up the heat in their fight to hold onto and win back their land.
More than eight months after the farmers forced the government to admit to its racist discrimination and agree to pay a miserly minimum of $50,000 each to farmers who were mistreated by the USDA, the vast majority of the farmers involved in the case haven’t seen a dime.
Farmers were supposed to be able to apply for compensation and relief under two “tracks” in the consent decree agreement. Under Track A farmers were all but promised a $50,000 settlement, along with relief from USDA debts, after “substantial” evidence of discrimination is presented. Track B in theory allows farmers to seek a larger cash settlement, but requires more documentation. “I’ve never heard of someone being found guilty in court,” only to have the plaintiff have to go and reestablish their guilt, said Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association (BFAA), referring to the evidence farmers are required to gather to press a claim under either track.
The settlement was a maneuver by the government to try to cut off the growing radicalization among a layer of farmers who are Black. But most farmers have heard of no payments being issued by the government. To the contrary, a number of farmers’ claims are being rejected, sparking renewed resistance among this vanguard layer among those who cultivate the land.
So far there have been more than 40,000 requests for claim packages, but farmers have only returned 18,000. One reason for this is the inadequate legal assistance provided by the state to help farmers file their claims.
Hundreds of farmers have taken off work, either from the farm or a farm-sustaining job, and traveled hundreds of miles to attend sessions with lawyers assigned to help farmers submit their claim packages, only to be turned away at the end of the day with no council and told to show up for the next session.
Farmers attending a strategy session after the December 13 action agreed to push for a six-month extension of the deadline to file claims under the consent decree.
No money and no land: nothing is settled
Al Piries, farmers’ initial lawyer, crafted the consent decree and pitched Track A as a surefire way to get some money from the government. He has since lauded the deal as effective, claiming that there will be a 70 percent approval rate of the 18,000 who have filed. Farmers at the post-protest meeting agreed to probe removing Piries as their lawyer.
Articles in the big-business press, including the New York Times and Washington Post, have also painted a picture of a settled fight. Jet magazine ran an article in its December 13 issue titled, “Black Farmers Receive Settlement Checks in Class-Action Lawsuit.” “Checks for $50,000 each have gone to more than 2,400 Black farmers,” the article begins. Later it states, “The settlement, announced in April ended the class-action lawsuit…” Readers of that article could easily come away thinking the government is making good on its agreement.
“When we started [the fight] in 1996, it took action after action before people began to pay attention,” said Grant. “We have to go back doing actions to let people know that this has not been settled.”
“Many think we have been paid and it’s all over with,” Alvin Walker from Eatonton, Georgia, commented. Walker, who has not received a penny under the consent decree, was a diary farmer for nearly 10 years. He lost his farm in 1996 due to the USDA’s discriminatory loan practices. “The deal was a flop, like many things have been a flop for Black farmers,” he declared.
James Lyle a former hog farmer in Prince Edwards County, Virginia, who lost his farm in 1982, said that he heard of 8 to 10 people in his area who received some moneys from the claim. None of them, he pointed out, currently farm or own land.
Earl Davis, president of the Oklahoma chapter of BFAA, explained, “Any Black farmer with a larger amount of land is being turned down [under Track A] and those with very small farms or who don’t farm anymore are getting the $50,000. Under Track A you not only get $50,000, but you also have access to $100,000 worth of credit,” in addition to having government debt removed, he stated. “Farmers with no land don’t qualify for the additional $100,000. Larger farmers do. So they prefer to give the landless farmer $50,000 and not have to pay any credit.”
‘To win we must work together’
“For far too long we have let the government divide and conquer,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) standing beside Grant in Lafayette Park. Grant and Boyd issued a joint call for the December 13 action on behalf of BFAA and NBFA. “The only way we can change” the policies of the USDA towards the farmers “is to work together,” said Boyd.
The night before the December 13 action, at a pre-protest meeting the mood was anxious and ready to move into the next stage of the fight. Farmers were glad to see each other and fellow fighters again. “I knew you’d be back,” was a common refrain between hardy handshakes and embraces.
In another sign of this growing sentiment to advance the struggle of farmers, several weeks before a BFAA fund-raising banquet was held in Fort Valley, Georgia, that drew more than 200 farmers and supporters.
The action called by BFAA and NBFA attracted a number of people who see themselves as part of this struggle. Among them is farmer Anna Marie Codario from New Jersey who is Italian-American and has been fighting for years to hold onto her land. “We have always supported the Black farmers. We are in the same boat,” Codario said, referring to herself, Mary Visconti, and Mary Ordille, also farmers from New Jersey who participated in the rally. “We wanted the Black farmers to know we as women farmers are suffering the same penalties as they are. If it hadn’t been for the Black farmers, our property would have already been sold to the highest bidder. Because we fought, the government had to hold our land in inventory. Their fight made us aware that we could fight.
“We didn’t find out about the Sunday night meeting until the day before, so we threw some clothes in a bag and hopped on the train. We didn’t care if it rained or not, we were ready,” Codario added. She knows a few other people who would be interested in setting up a BFAA chapter in New Jersey.
Ordille lives in Hammonton, New Jersey. “My farm was between an FSA [Farm Services Agency] member and his brother,” Ordille said. “They wanted my land. From the minute I walked into their offices for a loan in 1982 it’s been hell for the past 17 years.” She applied for a $185,000 loan, and paid more than $380,000 on it. “And they still wanted $97,000 more. That’s $480,000!” She finally had to move to sell the land herself, before the government could force a sale for less money.
Nate Paulsen, a 19-year-old student from the University of Minnesota, came to join the action. “I feel like their cause needs to be given more voice. Not enough people understand the farmer’s fight is of vital importance to us,” he said. “I’m a relative newcomer to these issues. I’ve never taken time before to talk to farmers, really. That’s also why I’m here—to learn more about this fight.”
Injustices against farmers continue
The government has not stopped its discriminatory practices towards the farmers. Oliver Williams raises cattle and boar meat goats in Spencer, Oklahoma. He bought several head of cattle in 1965. From 1972 to today the government has refused to grant him a loan. Williams joined BFAA “about a year ago.”
Teresa Simmons a 38-year-old BFAA member in Rockwall, Texas, applied for a loan to start a farm in 1993. She wanted to raise cows and horses. “When I first tried to apply, the USDA didn’t even want to give me an application.” Then they told her she could only get a loan if her credit was good. When the credit check showed she was in good shape, they told her they had no money set aside for farm loans. They began doing illegal credit checks. She took the USDA to court and won. “They tried to make me settle for a house.” It took 11 months for the USDA carry out the court order and begin building her house, all the while they tried to wiggle out of it.
Now Simmons helps her father, James Phillips, in his fight. “He used to raise corn and wheat and other cow feed. In the early ’90s they would not qualify him for disaster loans.” He has been unable to farm ever since.
Farmers discuss, debate road forward
At the meeting following the action farmers discussed the next steps of their fight. The common agreement among the all those present was to call actions for January 17 in Atlanta and for late February in Washington, D.C.
Several participants raised questions that sparked debate. L.C. Cooper, from North Carolina, began by pointing out that the Democratic Party politicians have done nothing for farmers. He then argued that Republican senator Trent Lott and former U.S. congressman Newt Gingrich did the most for the Black farmers in their suit.
Ridgely Mohammed talked about starting a “third force…not a third party” who’s aim would be to use the “power of the Black vote” to persuade the two main capitalist parties to listen to the farmers’ demands. He also drew on the economic nationalist anti-WTO protests in Seattle, which he said he participated in, to argue that the biggest threat to farmers is Asian capitalists who he said scope out Black farms and target them to buy up.
“We are going to win [support] from one of the parties, but what are we winning?” asked one farmer, dubious about the merit of their support. “That $50,000 is nothing.”
“Neither the Democratic or Republican parties care what happens to farmers,” remarked James Harris, a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees from Atlanta. “The most powerful thing farmers can do is what has been done today, protesting in the streets. The most important thing in my opinion to do today is to concretize the dates for the January and February protest actions.”
One farmer, Rudell Lee, from Oklahoma spoke after that, reiterating the need to call actions right away. He said discussion about a “Million Family March” and other lobbying activities was fine, but “I want my land!” The actions, he said, are the most important. “We gotta get it done.”
The successful action December 13 is part of a growing resistance among small farmers as a whole. Cranberry farmers in Carver, Massachusetts, who are fighting against falling prices; farmers across eastern North Carolina who still have not been aided after the flood disaster earlier this year; Native American farmers who have just launched a class-action suit against the government for its well-known discriminatory practices against oppressed nationalities; and many others from landless rural workers in Brazil to farmers across Europe are all potential allies in the coming battles against the common exploiter—the capitalist class.
Alvin Walker summed it up. “The working class along with the farming class are allies. The only thing we haven’t done is to find our common ground. The government is taking money from all of us. The workers and the small farmers are the same. We are the power. You can vote or whatever, but we are the power.
“It used to be that if a farmer was in trouble and was going to loose their land we would just stand by…” Pausing for a second with a gaze of confidence and determination, Walker concluded, “But that has changed.”